Women have looked after the dead for centuries. In Ancient Greece, they were entrusted with everything from preparing the body to post-burial visitations. So it feels natural, in Sunshine Cleaning, for two sisters to perform purification rites on gory crime scenes. Something about this morose but moving indie film feels primal. Who knows better than women the linkage of blood and pain and life?
Rose (Amy Adams) starts out cleaning hotel rooms. Her younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt) can’t even hold a waitressing job. Rose hears from her cop lover (Steve Zahn), a high-school sweetheart who ended up marrying someone else, that there’s a lot of money in crime-scene clean-up. The sisters throw themselves into the job without much thought or preparation. Gradually, they learn about things like proper biohazard disposal (you don’t leave a bloody mattress in a dumpster).
Written and directed by women (Megan Holley and Christine Jeffs, respectively), Sunshine Cleaning is a strongly female film, attending to emotional connections that would elude male filmmakers. There’s also no callow man-bashing, even towards the philandering cop. The sisters’ dad (Alan Arkin), an old-school salesman, is viewed fondly; he had to raise them alone, after their mother killed herself. Rose’s son Oscar (Jason Spevack) is having trouble at school, but this seems to be more a function of boredom and restless intelligence than of any disorder; when the principal starts talking meds, Rose starts thinking private school.
Rose is the optimist of the piece, starting each day with a Post-It in her mirror that sounds like Beck’s ironic mantra in “Loser” (“I’m a driver, I’m a winner/Things are gonna change, I can feel it”). Norah, though, is the one who seeks out the daughter (Mary Lynn Rajskub) of a woman who committed suicide; a tentative friendship, bordering on flirtation, blooms out of this. Adams and Blunt are a smooth unit; these sisters know each other’s internal fractures as well as they know their own. Outwardly, Norah is the screw-up of the two, tattooed and snarly, but also sensitive and more deeply scarred; she was too young when her mother died, and doesn’t really remember her. All the sisters have is the hope of randomly catching their mom’s bit part in a TV movie.
More sobering than laugh-out-loud funny, Sunshine Cleaning gives full weight to the impact of death without rubbing our faces in the crime scenes. A suicide that kicks the movie off is viewed contemptuously and callously by the male cops, but we see that it’s just their way of coping with it day in and day out. The sisters clean up the vestiges of death, trying to restore some semblance of normalcy. Neither of these responses is really equal to the finality and emotional wreckage of death, but then what is? The movie respects those who struggle with hardship, right down to the friendly one-armed clerk at the biocleaner store (Clifton Collins Jr.). That hardship is life as much as death.